Joe Biden
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on his revised Build Back Better spending plan in the East room of the White House on October 28, 2021 in Washing​ton, DC.(Photo by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA via AP Images)

Last Thursday, when the White House released its framework for the president’s Build Back Better Act, followed shortly after by release of the actual legislative language, liberal policy advocates had to wrestle with a professional and emotional quandary. Whole programs that had been a central part of Build Back Better for months, like paid family leave, had been dropped in efforts to get centrist Democrats like Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on board. Spending levels for almost everything else that remained had been sliced considerably. Should activists feel betrayed? Or should they be thankful that the narrowest of Democratic Senate majorities came together (we think, anyway—Manchin and Sinema still haven’t formally blessed the bill) around $1.75 trillion in additional spending on everything from health care to clean energy?

This was no less true in the realm of higher education. University administrators, trade association lobbyists, state legislators, student groups, and various reform-minded advocacy organizations had to digest the fact that higher ed funding, at least as it’s traditionally defined, fell by more than half, from around $115 billion in one earlier iteration of the bill to $40 billion in the new framework.

The White House plan contains some significant boosts in funding for higher education, but, alas, only a modest increase in the size of Pell Grants, as well as fewer additional funds for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their Hispanic and Native American analogs than was initially anticipated. Programs to help students avoid dropping out—a key goal for reform advocates—were slashed significantly. And the most high-profile item, funding for tuition-free community college, was eliminated entirely, even though Biden campaigned on it in 2020 and First Lady Jill Biden, who teaches community college students, had also championed it.

By a fortunate coincidence, on the very day the framework and legislation were released and the president hustled down Pennsylvania Avenue to encourage lawmakers to embrace his proposal the think tank New America and the Washington Monthly held a pre-scheduled conference, “Investing in America’s Real Best Colleges,” at which key administration officials, including Undersecretary of Education James Kvaal, had a chance to speak about—and be grilled on—these issues. (The confab is an annual event following the publication every September of the Monthly’s college guide.)

Here are five takeaways from the conversation about the scaled-back Build Back Better Act.

Free community college might not be dead yet. Kvaal made news at the conference by noting that the Biden administration isn’t giving up on free community college. “The president is around for at least three more years, hopefully longer—so we’re going to have other opportunities to push our agenda on Capitol Hill,” he said. “It’s a little hard to say right now what the legislative opportunity or strategy is going to be, but I know he’s going to try to turn over every stone and find ways to make progress on that idea.”

That might sound like political spin. Certainly, the politics of the issue are unlikely to get easier, especially if Democrats lose one or both chambers of Congress in 2022. But Kvaal is an experienced hand who is deeply wired in the Biden administration, having served as deputy domestic policy adviser under Barack Obama and in education policy roles since the Clinton administration, along with key Biden advisers like Bruce Reed, Ron Klain, and Steve Ricchetti. Given the president’s commitment to the idea, the possibility that funds for free community college could get added to some future reconciliation bill or must-pass omnibus budget legislation shouldn’t be discounted.

Less is still a helluva lot. While the Build Back Better framework doesn’t include the doubling of Pell Grants that some had hoped for, it still funds a $550 increase, making the grant just under $6,500. But that is in addition to a $400 boost that went through the appropriations process, adding up to a good 15 percent increase.

What should get more attention is that, as Kvaal noted, the Pell increase can’t be used at for-profit colleges. Education reformers have sought such a move for some time. Still, the previous administration, led by a certain someone who once headed Trump University, was less than keen on cutting off the for-profit industry and reversed earlier efforts to tame the flood of money sloshing its way.

Funding for the Minority Serving Institution Program took a huge hit, from an expected $90 billion to $10 billion. But at the conference, Karrie G. Dixon, the president and chancellor of a widely praised public HBCU, Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, took a pragmatic approach. North Carolina generously funds its public higher ed institutions, which is one reason why Dixon’s university has always scored highly on the Washington Monthly’s rankings. “I’m just grateful for the support that Elizabeth City State University is receiving at the state, local, or federal level,” Dixon said. “I want all of our HBCUs to be able to receive that same type of investment.”

That glass-a-quarter-full sentiment was summed up by another speaker at the event, Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis, author of Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines. “My view is that we’ve made progress, and we shouldn’t take it for granted,” Merisotis said. “But we should also recognize the unrealized historic opportunity we had this year to make a significant dent on generations’ worth of underinvestment.” (Lumina is a funder of New America and the Washington Monthly.)

Undersecretary of Education James Kvaal speaks at a New America panel discussion on the Washington Monthly’s 2021 College Guide and Rankings (Screen Capture)

Yeah, U.S. News still sucks. “Orienting our colleges to value privilege as prestige, higher costs over affordability, and selectivity over inclusivity just doesn’t serve the interests of our nation well,” Kvaal said, referring to the baleful influence of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. Indeed, as Washington Monthly editor in chief Paul Glastris noted, the vast bulk of the spending in the administration’s Build Back Better bill would benefit colleges that tend to do less well on that magazine’s metrics than on the Washington Monthly’s—a fact Kvaal is quite aware of.

“I think work like the Washington Monthly’s and New America’s, which places a stronger emphasis on the share of low-income students earning degrees and the career outcomes of alumni, moves us closer in that direction,” he said. “It’s changed the conversation, and it’s shown college leaders that there is more than one set of values that they can use to guide their institutions.”

National service money is education money. The president’s Build Back Better framework includes a significant boost to national service programs, directing billions to climate change mitigation and funding a new program, the Civilian Climate Corps (CCC). The White House is boasting that there’s enough funding to put 300,000 volunteers in this new program, modeled on the New Deal–era Civilian Conservation Corps, which did so much to conserve and develop the nation’s natural resources. If the new program offers, as expected, educational grants along the lines of AmeriCorps, it will be a significant source of tuition revenue to the higher ed sector by allowing more Americans to attend two- and four-year colleges. Even better, as Glastris noted in the magazine’s latest college guide, the alumni of AmeriCorps seem, based on somewhat limited but still significant data, to have impressive graduation rates—another boon to higher ed.

Sonali Nijhawan, the director of AmeriCorps State and National, spoke at the conference and echoed Glastris’s point that the expansion of national service means that more people would receive higher education grants that could be used for tuition or to pay back student loans. AmeriCorps members who complete their service receive Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards, a fellowship named after the late Eli Segal, one of the founders of AmeriCorps. Since the size of the Segal fellowships is tied to the size of Pell Grants, those will increase. (In addition, AmeriCorps received more than $1 billion in the American Rescue Plan that passed earlier this year.)

“Like the GI Bill, AmeriCorps is based on a simple idea: that when you serve your country, you get help for education,” Nijhawan said. “AmeriCorps members have earned more than $4 billion in education awards since 1994. And the awards have helped Americans . . . to pursue their dreams of higher education by making it more accessible and affordable.”

The expansion of national service to include a new Civilian Climate Corps has another benefit. It helps mitigate one of the disappointments of the higher education community—a much smaller fund to promote retention and completion programs for students at risk of dropping out of four-year and two-year colleges. “The original proposal was for a very large fund, the types of billions of dollars that might have been almost akin to a Title I for higher education,” Kevin Carey, New America’s vice president for education policy, said.

These “wraparound” programs help mitigate the high dropout rate of higher ed students, especially community college students, and they have shown tremendous promise. (See this in-depth account from Jamaal Abdul-Alim in the Washington Monthly. The magazine has written elsewhere about these retention and completion programs, including here and here.) At one point, funding for retention programs might have garnered as much as $9 billion; now, it’s way down, to $500 million. Having tens of thousands of volunteers work their way through a Civilian Climate Corps could make up for some of the difference.

What survives is what you lobby for. As Timothy Noah recently explained in The New Republic, the free community college provision died partly because of the opposition of four-year colleges that weren’t particularly shy about this indifference to the plight of two-year schools, as Glastris noted at the conference. The much weaker community college lobby (such as it is) couldn’t provide the same political muscle for the president’s proposal. Even with the Bidens personally invested in free community college, it got excised.

Here’s where higher education can learn some lessons about lobbying and the power of coalitions: By contrast, the CCC not only survived the winnowing process, but also thrived—no thanks to the higher education community, which failed to appreciate that it had a stake in the program’s creation. Instead, the idea of a new CCC had massive support from the left and the environmental movement. The environmental group Sunrise Action especially made it a priority. The CCC was championed by progressives in Congress, including Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and more than 80 other members. Their imprimatur guaranteed that it would be a progressive darling. Since Manchin had single-handedly gutted other parts of the clean energy package, there was hydraulic pressure behind keeping what was left to combat climate change, including the new CCC.

The CCC was a product not just of the left but of a coalition. Since AmeriCorps has had significant support across the House and Senate Democratic caucuses—despite some suspicion from the left for potentially undercutting organized labor—it couldn’t be dismissed as just something dreamed up by AOC and the Squad. Senator Chris Coons, who holds Joe Biden’s former seat in the Senate and is arguably his closest friend in the chamber, is a moderate and a backer of the measure, as is another moderate senator, Michael Bennet of Colorado. The new CCC took root because a broad coalition made it so and wasn’t quickly weeded out when it came time for the bill to be paired. By contrast, the ed lobby had tunnel vision pushing for aid that directly benefited colleges and universities.

If the CCC survives and proves to be anything like AmeriCorps, it’ll be a boon to its service members, to the organizations it helps, to the nation, and, indeed, to the entire world. Higher education will benefit, too, even if its advocates have yet to appreciate that fact. Call it a hidden windfall that can help colleges and universities ease their disappointment over not having gotten more from Build Back Better.

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.